The kindred mind

Copyright © 1996 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Essays | 1.18.03

The Unitarian luminary William Ellery Channing would have startled the Calvinists of his day with statements like this remark from his 1828 sermon, "Likeness to God": "Christ's greatness is manifested in the greatness of the nature which he was sent to redeem" (251). From the Calvinist perspective, Channing's assertion must have seemed a gross erasure of the difference between God's deserved glory and humankind's deserved depravity. Surely, Channing's critics would insist, Christ came to proclaim the glory of God and to redeem sinful humankind. But Channing argues that the Calvinists had seriously confused matters of religion by emphasizing the moral impotence of human beings and the radical otherness of God. He finds their view of God barbaric and their view of human nature unconscionably dreary. Channing affirms that human beings are fully responsible, free agents to whom God is not a wrathful judge, but rather a "kindred mind." True Christianity, for Channing, is the cultivation of the inherent moral properties of the human soul. Through the cultivation of the soul, the human being comes ever nearer the mind of God. Not only are human beings capable of being good; human beings are capable of being like God.

Channing's positive assessment of human nature involves several lines of reasoning. Because two related Calvinist doctrines especially offend him, Channing attacks each to the same end, overturning both the radical inscrutability of God and the moral inability of man in order to proclaim the innate moral affinity of human beings to God. He tends to argue simultaneously for the benevolence of God and the trustworthiness of human reason. "God is great and good beyond utterance or thought," he affirms, but he believes Calvinism errs by also distrusting human judgment: "[W]e think it ungrateful to disparage the powers which our Creator has given us, or to question the certainty or importance of the knowledge, which he has seen fit to place within our reach" (The Moral Argument Against Calvinism, 225). When he adds that "the ultimate reliance of a human being is and must be on his own mind" (226), Channing draws attention to his central claim that moral discernment must be a natural capacity of human nature lest human beings have no way to make moral choices.

He argues, essentially, that without the ability to make choices, people cannot be held responsible for their actions. But Channing carries this claim further. The human mind not only possesses moral agency; it also possesses the principles of the moral law. This "inward law" of the soul allows human beings to recognize the truth of the revealed moral law, because the soul recognizes the kinship of revelation to its own self-evident law. Without this inward law, "the thunders of Sinai might startle the outward ear, but would have no meaning, no authority to the mind" (Likeness to God, 234). Even more significantly, the human mind also possesses the attributes of the divine personality, thereby allowing human beings to recognize God. Channing writes: "The Infinite Light would be for ever hidden from us, did not kindred rays dawn and brighten within us" (233). I will return momentarily to Channing's understanding of divine nature, but it should be sufficient at this point to emphasize that Channing does not see any sensible way to claim that human beings can know God except through the mind; an unintelligible God could have no legitimate place in human consciousness, so Channing affirms the intelligibility of God and the innate human ability to recognize the attributes of the intelligible (if incomprehensible) God.

Channing assumes that human beings can be aware only of those existent things for which the mind has concepts. In empirical experience, new concepts can be constructed as the mind processes sensory data in terms of related concepts already in mind. But in non-sensory experience, such as the perception of moral principles or especially in the contemplation of God, there is of course no sensory input. Moral perception and spiritual perception are purely mental activities, although Channing has a larger sense of "mental activity" than what we usually mean by "thinking": one cannot imagine Channing claiming that God is "just" an idea. The faculties of the mind by which human beings can know God are faculties which must already have concepts with which to consider God's attributes, or there is no way to hold God in mind. Channing emphasizes an important distinction here: that God's incomprehensibility must not be construed to mean that God is unintelligible. "We do not pretend to know the whole nature and properties of God, but still we can form some clear ideas of him, and can reason from these ideas as justly as from any other" (The Moral Argument, 228; emphasis in original). When Channing makes his more radical-sounding argument that the attributes of God reside also in human nature, it should be remembered that Channing's epistemology depends on the idea that a human being cannot make sense of anything for which she does not have some conceptual affinity; just as the attributes of the things in the world have conceptual analogues in the mind, so too divine things have conceptual analogues. Without them, thought would be impossible in Channing's philosophy.

But Channing does make a radical claim: "In Christianity particularly, I meet perpetual testimonies to the divinity of human nature" (Likeness to God, 231). Channing asserts that human nature possesses not only the conceptual framework for recognizing an intelligible deity; Channing claims that human nature possesses the same attributes as God himself. God invites human beings not just to know him; God invites human beings to be like him. Although the biblical tradition has always proclaimed the righteousness demanded of God's people, Channing parts with his Calvinist fellow-Christians by asserting that human righteousness does not require a change of human nature: the ability to do good is inherent already in human nature. Those attributes of the divine nature which characterize God's benevolence are precisely the same attributes in human nature which characterize moral human actions. The difference between God's morality and human morality, so to speak, is one of degrees only and not of innate difference. But Channing seems to go further when he says:

The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. (Likeness to God, 233)

The epistemological significance of this claim should be emphasized over any concern that Channing may have deftly elevated every person into the pantheon, if only because Channing is arguing for the kinship of God and humankind, not the equation of God and humankind. As I explained above, Channing hopes to describe how God can be known, not merely in an intellectual sense but especially in an intimate and devoted sense. Channing is attempting to articulate the manner by which human beings do know God and hope to emulate God. His view of human nature is unmistakably optimistic, but it seems motivated by a profound appreciation for the benevolent fatherhood of God, which Channing proclaims with zeal.

Channing preaches that careful cultivation of the moral nature brings human beings into increasing "likeness to God." Harmony with the creation, which the Unitarians of Channing's day perceived as a mark of true piety, is effected by bringing the human mind into resemblance of the mind of God. Essentially, as the mind is cultivated in order to "possess the principles from which the universe sprung," the mind begins to perceive as God perceives, attending to the "beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes" of the principles according to which the universe is organized (Likeness to God, 230). Interestingly, as a human being increases in likeness to God, the vision which opens is not of God himself, but rather of the principles behind the universe. The Fatherhood of God, as Channing understands it, is oriented to draw people to see as God sees rather than to draw people to see God; God becomes the model and the ideal version of human vision and action. "It is only in proportion to this likeness, that we can enjoy either God or the universe" (229). The word "or" is telling here. Channing celebrates innate human moral ability; he celebrates the presence of divine attributes in the human soul; he celebrates the affinity between human beings and God. But the goal of human life is dual rather than singular, at least in this intriguing sentence: in growing in likeness to God, the human being comes to greater enjoyment of God or the universe, not necessarily as mutually exclusive options certainly, but quite possibly in a collapsing of the terms. "To a man who is growing in the likeness of God, faith begins even here to change into vision" (229), but the vision Channing presents is a vision of moral principles and natural principles, the enjoyment of the objects of God's vision. Because the grandeur of human nature is the human ability to see as God sees, Channing does shift the focal point toward principles somewhat more abstract than God himself.


Written for "Liberalism and Orthodoxy," Professor David Hall, Harvard Divinity School, November 18, 1996.

Works Cited

William Ellery Channing. "Likeness to God." 1828. In The Works of William E. Channing, Volume 3, Eighth ed., Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1848, 227-255.
———. "The Moral Argument Against Calvinism." 1820. In The Works of William E. Channing, Volume 1, Eighth ed., Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1848, 217-241.
———. "Spiritual Freedom." 1830. In The Works of William E. Channing, Volume 4, Eighth ed., Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1848, 67-79.
———. "Unitarian Christianity." 1819. In Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker, ed. by Conrad Wright, second ed., Boston: Skinner House Books, 1986, 47-89.

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Philocrites | Copyright © 1996, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton